What Walt Whitman Got Right in His 1858 Men’s Health Guide

by Dustin Christensen

Walt Whitman

Leaves of Grass is now considered an icon of American poetry, but it wasn’t an overnight success. The first two editions of the collection sold modestly, and in 1858, at the age of 39, Walt Whitman was far from becoming the folk legend he is today.

That same year, a man named Mose Velsor began writing a weekly column for The New York Atlas called “Manly Health and Training,” a collection of anecdotal tips on men’s health. The column covered a little of everything: walking in nature, eating properly, maintaining a beard, working out with the everyday objects around you, taking in fresh air. That sort of thing.

150 years and a curious graduate student later, we now know that Whitman and Velsor were one in the same. Though Whitman hinted at “Manly Health” in his notebooks and journals, there had never been evidence of an actual series until Zachary Turpin at the University of Houston discovered the column while searching old newspapers for Whitman’s pen names.

Now, the 47,000-word column has been adapted into the pocket-sized Walt Whitman’s Guide to Manly Health and Trainingpairing the bard’s advice with beautiful illustrations from Matthew Allen, a surfer and artist from Southern California.

“It is part guest editorial, part self-help column,” writes Turpin in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. Ed Folsom, editor of the journal, called the column “a hymn to the male body, as well as a guide to taking care of what he saw as the most vital unit of democratic living.”

It may be 150 years old, but much of the advice, though sounding like a mixture of opinion and pseudoscience, still holds water today. Here’s a look at what Whitman, who lived to 72, got right.

On the Goal of Training

“In robust training for this life, which is itself a continual fight with some form of adversary or other, the aim should be to form that solid and adamantine fiber which will endure long and serious attacks upon it, and come out unharmed from them, rather than the ability to perform sudden and brilliant feats, which often exhaust the powers in show, without doing any substantial good.”

walt whitman beard

What the Research Says

“What matters is grit,” writes Angela Duckworth in her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. The book is a testament to just how much grit – rather than innate talent or skill alone – plays a role in personal achievement. Many times, the “sudden and brilliant feats” that we see publicly are the result of habits, self-discipline and deliberate practice done behind the scenes.

Such is the case when we see the “overnight success” that’s really years and decades in the making.

In her TED Talk, viewed more than 10 million times, Duckworth calls grit a “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals.”

“Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

According to the author’s research, which attempts to identify the roots of personal achievement, most people “who are gritty are more self-controlled,” another important predictor of success.

And for those lacking in grittiness?

“The good news is, if you aren’t particularly gritty now, there is something you can do about it,” writes Heidi Grant at Harvard Business Review. “People who lack grit more often than not believe that they just don’t have the innate abilities successful people have. If that describes your own thinking …. well, there’s no way to put this nicely: you are wrong.”

Duckworth even created a Grit Scale, a 5-point, 10-question survey that compares your grittiness to other American adults. It’s easy to see by the tone of questioning what makes up Duckworth’s idea of grit: concentrating purposely on what matters over the long haul. Avoiding distractions (shiny object syndrome) and working with laser-beam persistence is paramount to achievement.

The power of grit does have its limitations, however.

“Like stubborness, too much grit can keep us sticking to goals, ideas, or relationships that should be abandoned,” writes NPR’s Hidden Brain Podcast staff. “Psychologist Gale Lucas and her colleagues found in one experiment that gritty individuals will persist in trying to solve unsolvable puzzles at a financial cost. And that’s a limitation of grit: it doesn’t give you insight into when it will help you prevail and when it will keep you stuck in a dead-end.”

Others question the importance of grit as a stand-alone characteristic of success. “There may be a few champions who get by purely on talent, luck, or family wealth, but we can assume—can’t we?—that most highly successful people are resilient and persevering,” writes New Yorker staff writer David Denby. “It would be news if they weren’t.”

The idea that grit is key to personal success might not be groundbreaking, but it’s more than worth keeping in mind when you’re confronting life’s challenges and adversaries in all their forms.

On Rejecting a Sedentary Life

“To you, clerk, literary man, sedentary person, man of fortune, idler… Up! The world (perhaps you now look upon it with pallid and disgusted eyes) is full of zest and beauty for you, if you approach it in the right spirit!”

Walt Whitman Manly Training


You could do worse than to follow the old poet’s advice when it comes to life behind the desk. The sedentary life refers to one that doesn’t include enough physical activity and exercise.

Many groups, including the Department of Health and Human Services and the World Health Organization, recommend folks get at least 150 minutes of exercise each week.

Unfortunately, not many of us are hitting our quotas: the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services claims that more than 80 percent of the world’s adolescent population doesn’t get enough exercise, and 1 in every 4 adults worldwide isn’t active enough. A US National Health Interview Survey showed that more than one-third of Americans were considered inactive and less than 60 percent participated in under 10 minutes of “vigorous exercise” each week.

But the sedentary life doesn’t just make lazy people – it makes dead ones. The WHO says that sedentary lifestyle problems make up the fourth-leading cause of death globally. Lack of activity has been linked to increased risks of disease in general, including cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

Higher blood pressure, lower sperm count and obesity have also been linked to physical inactivity. Prolonged sitting has been shown to increase the risk of dying early, and many researchers now say that the negative effects of sitting aren’t necessarily offset by exercise.

The problems with sitting aren’t just limited to physical diseases – research shows that mental deterioration is just as likely. One study showed that men who sit for more than 6 hours a day showed greater signs of anxiety, stress and tension than those who sat for less than 3 hours daily.

Older adults with sedentary lifestyles were found to be just as at-risk for dementia as those with genetic predisposition to dementia, meaning that a lack of exercise was just as much a factor in developing dementia as genes are.

Sedentary habits are on the rise, but it hasn’t always been this way.
So where did we go wrong?

“The goal of sitting is to give our bodies a break from standing, which is the way human anatomy and physiology is designed. Human design is to be upright for most of the day: walking at work, walking and nurturing our young, walking while inventing, walking while gathering our food, running on the hunt,” writes James Levine in his book, Get Up!: Why Your Chair is Killing You and What You Can Do About It.

“Sitting, we know from studies in rural populations, is supposed to be undertaken in short batches to break up the motion of a dynamic day.”

But the opposite has become true. Levine says we now sit for 13 hours (this estimate varies by source), sleep for 8 and move for about 3, so it’s no wonder that we’re plagued by health problems.

“Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death,” Levine says.

For as much good as technology has done the world, it’s also contributed to many of our sedentary habits.

“Once the desk/chair combination became the cultural norm in the workplace, other sitting-based innovations followed,” writes Dr. Kelly Starrett in Deskbound: Standing Up to a Sitting World.

“The intercom allowed office workers to communicate without getting up from their chairs. The TV set seduced people of all ages into passive leisure-time activity. In the 1950s, when car had become affordable to the general public and the interstate highway system was developed, people began flocking to the suburbs, and the commuter culture was kick-started. Then, of course, came the computer, and our fate as sedentary creatures was sealed. We had become deskbound.”

While technology solved many of the problems in our lives, it also created unforeseen side-effects that are often difficult to pin down because they’re so innocuous seeming.

“Designed to make life easier, these inventions quickly became integral parts of our existence,” writes Joan Vernikos in Sitting Kills, Moving Heals. “But what many of us did not realize is that these labor-saving devices have a serious downside: They systematically rob us of all the habitual movements we used to make when we lived without them – the perpetual motion our great-grandparents engaged in, day in and day out, throughout their entire lives.”

Now, she says, “we simply sit.”

Offsetting the Sedentary Life

For desk jockeys everywhere, there is hope. You don’t need a complete change of lifestyle to offset the effects of sitting all day, but you do need to make purposeful habits in your day that get you moving and active. Getting up for frequent breaks, using a standing-adjustable desk and holding “walk-and-talk” meetings are all good ways to mix things up in the office, if possible.

Standing desks have become a trendy way to avoid sitting, but researchers are quick to point out that they’re not a cure-all, and in fact, the focus should be on movement rather than choosing one posture or another for an extended time.

One study compared sitting-only workers to those who had the ability to sit or stand during the day. After the study was done, the standing-capable workers were found to be nearly 50 percent more productive, but they only sat for about 1.6 hours less than their counterparts. The benefit of adjustable desks, it would seem, is more about the ability to continually move and change one’s position and posture rather than standing all day.

Some researchers are even beginning to see exercise and sitting as two totally separate components of daily life, where one doesn’t necessarily offset the other. “Does exercise compensate for a bad night’s sleep?” asks Jacqueline Kerr, PhD, associate professor of family and preventive medicine at UC San Diego. “So why should exercise compensate for the fact that you sit all day?”

To mix things up, consider using alternative office products like the Indo Board, a balance trainer that’s great for standing desks, or Cubii, an under-desk elliptical that helps keep your muscles moving while you’re working. Will you get side-eyed? Maybe. Does it make you look like the office wild card? Perhaps.

If time is a major constraint, you don’t need a full-fledged weekly gym routine to make gains. One English research group found that participants working out even one or two days a week were “40 percent less likely to die from heart disease” and nearly 20 percent less likely to die from various cancers.

If you use a fitness tracker, consider finding a milestone that works for you, rather than the one-size-fits-all 10,000 steps per day. One study showed that those who hit 15,000 steps each day had “normal waistlines” and a lower risk of heart disease. For others, including older adults, that number might do more harm than good, so consider setting a goal that’s manageable without causing undue stress.

No matter how you do it, just get up. Up! Between the commute, the workplace and the couch, sitting is a major part of many people’s daily routines, but it can be tempered – and the time to start is now.

“Parents still tell their children to get off the sofa and go out and play,” says one Mayo Clinic study. “Recent evidence is compelling that adults too need similar advice from their physicians. Patients need to get out of their chairs more frequently, both at work and at home.”

On Training and Ennui

“The observance of the laws of manly training, duly followed, can utterly rout and do away with the curse of a depressed mind, melancholy, ‘ennui,’ which now, in more than half the men of America, blights a large portion of the days of their existence.”

Walt Whitman Railroad Tracks


Women are about twice as likely to experience depression than men, says the American Psychological Association, but that doesn’t mean the dudes aren’t susceptible. Nearly 10 percent of men experience daily feelings of depression, and more than 30 percent will have a depressed episode at some point in their lives.

But what Whitman is likely referring to here is less clinical depression and more weariness. “Ennui is the French word for boredom,” writes Arika Okrent at Mental Floss. “By the middle of the 19th century, ennui became associated with the alienation of industrialization and modern life. Artists and poets suffered from it, and soon a claim to ennui was a mark of spiritual depth and sensitivity.”

If Slyvia Plath named a poem after it, you can bet it’s some pretty heavy shit. Yet for all the research done on anxiety and depression, and how they relate to physical activity, it’s still not entirely clear how exactly these are interrelated.

It’s generally accepted, however, that physical exercise has been known to dissipate the symptoms of depression and anxiety. Exercise helps release positive chemicals like neurotransmitters, endorphins and endocannabinoids, says the Mayo Clinic, all of which can ease feelings of depression. Exercise can also improve the immune system and increase body temperature, which often has a calming effect on the body.

More than anything, physical exercise can be a good outlet to release the tensions of the day, and whether or not it offers quantifiable changes in mood, moving around and staying active can give you something to do to stay occupied and healthy.

Studies show that even five minutes of aerobic exercise can have stress-relieving effects.

And if you’re feeling depressed, working out and staying active can have far-reaching effects. One study found that depressed participants in an experiment showed signs of improvement even a year after the study was done, whether or not they maintained their physical regimen.

Whitman’s idea of training is even more beneficial when it’s done outdoors.

“Exercising outdoors in a natural setting with trees and plants appears to be superior to exercising in an environment devoid of such ‘green’ qualities,” writes Matthew MacKinnon, MD, at Psychology Today. “The positive effects rapidly develop with even just five minutes of outdoor time offering a very achievable goal even for busy individuals.”

There’s no escaping the highs and lows of life, and whatever name it goes by – ennui, melancholy, sadness – the feeling of weariness that’s inherent with life can’t be avoided entirely, but it may be lessened by routine exercise and activity.

On Fresh Air

“Few know what virtue there is in the open air. Beyond all charms or medications, it is what renews vitality, and, as much as the nightly sleep, keeps the system from wearing out and stagnating upon itself.”


“This the common air that bathes the globe,” writes Whitman in his epic poem, “Song of Myself.” To Whitman, fresh air was an underrated aspect of health that, to this day, doesn’t always get the credit it deserves.

The simple, overlooked concept of simply going outside often seems lost in today’s fast-paced, tech-driven world, but the idea of fresh air as remedy has been around for thousands of years.

“As humans began to make a transition from rural life to urban civilizations, an even greater emphasis was placed on taking advantage of the medicinal effects of nature,” writes Eva Selhub and Alan Logan in Your Brain On Nature: Become Smarter, Happier, and More Productive, While Protecting Your Brain Health for Life.

“For example, records of early Roman philosophers and physicians, such as Cornelius Celsus, show that walking in gardens, exposure to rooms filled with light, staying close to water, and other nature-based activities were effective components of standardized plans to improve mental health and sleep.”

The effects of fresh air would appear more important than ever: studies from the EPA show that the average American spends nearly 90 percent of their time indoors. And while some demographics are more outdoors focused than others, many people simply take for granted how beneficial fresh, open air can be.

“We don’t experience natural environments enough to realize how restored they can make us feel, nor are we aware that studies also show they make us healthier, more creative, more empathetic and more apt to engage with the world and with each other,” writes Florence Williams in The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative.

“Nature, it turns out, is good for civilization.”

The solution? Get back to your roots.

One way to do that is with Shinrin-yoku, or the art of “forest bathing.” It’s a Japanese concept that dates back to the 1980s, though the core idea of forest-enjoyment has been a bedrock of spiritual practice in the country for centuries.Shinrin-yoku, unlike other outdoor activities like hiking, is about awareness and appreciation for the elements around you rather than reaching a specific locale.“So whereas a nature walk’s objective is to provide informational content and a hike’s is to reach a destination, a Shinrin-yoku walk’s objective is to give participants an opportunity to slow down, appreciate things that can only be seen or heard when one is moving slowly, and take a break from the stress of their daily lives,” said Ben Page, who runs LA-based Shinrin-yoku walks.Proponents of the practice claim that it reduces stress, decreases blood pressure and boosts the immune system, and studies back the idea that simply being in nature alone can improve mood and biological functions.One study showed that the smell of rose oil made people more calm and reduced blood pressure; another claimed that the effectiveness of Shinrin-yoku increases as initial stress levels do, so those with chronic stress and tension may benefit more than anyone else.

And for those with limited time to unwind, consider that just 20 minutes in nature each day can markedly improve your vitality, so even a quick stroll through a local park can be worth its weight in (mental) gold.

On Sleep

“The healthy sleep — the breathing deep and regular — the unbroken and profound repose — the night as it passes soothing and renewing the whole frame. Yes, nature surely keeps her choicest blessings for the slumber of health — and nothing short of that can ever know what true sleep is.”

Walt Whitman Lifestyle Article


A 2017 New York Times article called sleep “the new status symbol,” and though that sounds like hyperbole, they may be on to something.

Blame the Internet, startup culture, round-the-clock tech use, but for years the more consumer-driven parts of our society have pushed an I’ll sleep when I’m dead productivity and grind that often causes more problems than it solves.

But today’s sleepers are catching on: the idea that less is more when it comes to waking hours is now gaining ground. If you’re going to spend a third of your life doing something, you might as well do it up right.

In The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time, Arianna Huffington writes that healthy sleep is, more than anything, a return to the core of being human. It’s about finding the peace of mind that “comes from a place deeper and more ancient than the unending noise that surrounds us.”

For all our modern conveniences, we’ve seemed to forget that one of the best ways to maintain health and level-headedness is to simply sleep, sans innovation. Yes, sleep science and gadgets might represent a multi-billion dollar industry, but at the end of the day, our tech addictions may cause more harm than good.

“And here is the further paradox: advances in technology have allowed us to pull back the curtain on what’s going on while we sleep, but technology is also one of the main reasons our relationship to this fundamental part of our existence has become so compromised,” Huffington writes in The Sleep Revolution.

Before you try the growing mass of sleep gadgets, apps, and helpers — consider making a few basic lifestyle changes to improve the quality and duration of your sleep.

Simple things like avoiding screens at night, finding a comfortable mattress that fits your body type and having a consistent, calming nightly routine can make significant differences in how you enter dreamland.

Exercise, a well-rounded diet and keeping your bedroom free of tech distractions are also solid ways to improve your sleep patterns. And if all else fails, here’s a weighted blanket that raised more than $2 million on Kickstarter. Neat.

This isn’t all he got right — the rest of the manifesto covers everything from beards to boxing, meat and diet standards to using cold water to boost your energy.

There’s also some wacky stuff in there, letting us not forget that this guide to manly health was still written in the 1800s, and that may be the best reason to grab yourself a copy.

Manly Health Training Whitman

Artwork by Matt Allen
Purchase the book Walt Whitman’s Guide to Manly Health and Training
Reprinted from WALT WHITMAN’S GUIDE TO MANLY HEALTH AND TRAINING Copyright © 2017 by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Art copyright © 2017 by Matthew Allen.

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